The Dark Side Of Dreamland

Michael S. Carona has taken a long, hard fall from the pedestal he stood upon as sheriff of Orange County, Calif. Recordings of him could do more damage.
Michael S. Carona has taken a long, hard fall from the pedestal he stood upon as sheriff of Orange County, Calif. Recordings of him could do more damage. (By Michael Goulding -- Orange County Register Via Associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- In his glory, Michael S. Carona appeared to personify the righteous virtue of Orange County, the famously conservative bastion that three times elected him sheriff.

"Don't sleep. Don't eat. Because we're coming after you," Carona famously warned the killer of Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old whose 2002 kidnapping cast him as "America's sheriff," in the phrase of Larry King. Lantern-jawed and charismatic, Carona worshiped at the Crystal Cathedral, wept manfully when appropriate and met with Karl Rove to discuss a political future that appeared nothing but bright.

So it was a steep fall from grace when Carona was charged with corruption and mail fraud last October, along with his wife and a woman the federal indictment described as his "long-time mistress." But the end is not in sight yet. His attorneys are asking a federal judge to prevent a future jury from hearing secretly recorded tapes of Carona snarling racial epithets, referring vulgarly to women and boasting of both sexual and political prowess.

"I mean, I've met millionaires, billionaires, and I've traveled on personal airplanes . . . drank great wine and, you know, had great booze and had some, you know, phenomenal [sex] along the way," Carona told his longtime patron, an auto auction magnate who was wearing a wire. "I'm the most lethal [expletive] in politics in Orange County."

The revelations have disappointed but not quite shocked Orange County, where the sensibility enshrined at Anaheim's Disneyland long has informed local politics, as well. Each invests heavily in an idealized, lavishly financed and fervently polished vision of Americana that few appear to accept as entirely real in the first place.

"I'm not clear on it. How do you go from this level," asked Arlan Flaum, on a leather couch in the tony atrium of the Fashion Island mall, "and all of a sudden you're the most corrupt guy in Orange County?"

Flaum, a clothing entrepreneur who has lived in the county for 50 years, went on to answer his own question: "There's quite an underground here that some are privy to and some aren't. It's amazing the things that do go down."

Before Carona's public disgrace, a superior court judge last year was sentenced to 27 months for possession of child pornography. The founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, located behind white wrought-iron curlicues in Costa Mesa, paid $425,000 to suppress an account of an alleged homosexual encounter. The Orange County Register reported that the Justice Department is investigating the county treasurer for allegedly diverting funds from a bankrupt trucking company to pay for Botox.

The discovery that Carona had installed secret video cameras in his office evoked Richard Nixon, the Yorba Linda native who after resigning as president retreated to San Clemente, a community once represented by a congressman the John Birch Society had ejected for "extremism."

Flaum once shook Nixon's hand in a restaurant. "He was real Orange County," he said.

Carona was, too.

"The guy is a real charmer. I voted for him," said Shirley Grindle, who worked in the aeronautical industry that first populated Orange County. She has devoted her retirement to bird-dogging the flow of funds between politicians and the developers who fueled its even more spectacular later growth. Nationwide, only four counties have more people than Orange's 3 million.

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